For the first time in decades, the San Antonio Spurs are entering a full-fledged rebuild season, and there may be no player fans are more eager to see in an expanded role than Keldon Johnson. After opening some eyes in the Bubble to end the 2019-20 season, he earned a starting role in 2020-21 and, despite some typical ups and downs, put up a solid statline of 12.8 points and 6 rebounds while bullying his way around the court on both ends. The one area he left something to be desired was three-point shooting, which he hit at just a 33.1 percent rate on 2.6 attempts per game.
Still, all that was from just a second-year player in his first season of meaningful action. Between that and winning the gold medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, he is prime candidate for a breakout season. Just ask some NBA executives, 15 of whom answered a poll from HoopsHype to list out their top three breakout candidates for the upcoming season. They were tabulated by the top player on each list receiving 5 points, the second receiving three, and the third receiving one point (that’s 135 possible points because math), and Johnson came in third with “17.33 percent of the maximum amount possible” (or 24 points).
“Johnson will have more runway this year with DeMar DeRozan gone,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype. “He’ll entrench himself as a starter. When he’s gotten minutes, he produces. He’s vastly improved his shooting.”
According to Basketball-Reference, Johnson started 26 games last season where he played between 30-39 minutes. He averaged 15.9 points on 49.5 percent shooting overall and 38 percent from downtown with 7.7 rebounds in such games.
After spending more time with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and winning a gold medal with Team USA together in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, Johnson is primed for a breakout season as San Antonio’s starting small forward.
“I’m curious how Keldon is after that summer with USA Basketball and Popovich believing in him even more,” an NBA scout noted.
Dejounte Murray also received votes, receiving 6.67 percent of the maximum amount possible votes (or 9 points by my calculations), and oddly enough so did former Spur Patty Mills with 1 point.
While Mills definitely had a down year by his standards last season, especially in the latter half when the grueling, COVID-condensed schedule began to take its toll, it’s hard to imagine he would have a breakout season simply by changing teams. To me, “breakout” implies a player having his best season yet and/or breaking into another tier. At age 33, one could easily see him returning to his best Spurs form as a 6th man, energizer, and shot-maker off the bench for the contending Nets, but that would be a “bounce back” in my book, not a breakout. But, to each their own.
Back to current Spurs, one who didn’t receive votes but to keep an eye on is Lonnie Walker. Entering his fourth season having not received and/or accepted an extension, this will be a contract year and possible career-defining season for him, and he hasn’t been exactly subtle about letting the world know he is ready to step up to the challenge. Another player to keep an eye on to possibly break into another tier is Derrick White — if he can stay healthy all season, of course.
What do you think of these rankings, Pounders? Is Keldon the most likely Spur to breakout, or is there someone else NBA execs are forgetting? Feel free to discuss in the comments below.